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Monday, December 01, 2014
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Climate Change Vet Cameron Explains How He’s Learned from Failure

By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15

In 1988, I was two years old in rural Alaska. I didn’t know what was happening in the world, let alone what was occurring in its atmosphere. Twice in the prior decade, in 1973 and 1979, the world experienced an energy crisis that saw fuel prices skyrocket. In his famous 1979 speech President Jimmy Carter said the country was experiencing a “Crisis of Confidence” and urged Americans to adopt energy conservation strategies. At the time, a few Middle Eastern nations, rich in fossil fuels, dictated the supply and price of the important commodity. President Carter, and later President Reagan, vowed to make greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels more affordable for everyone.

And so cheaper fuel ballooned.

In the midst of this, in 1988 when James Cameron – now director of Climate Change Capital – was a law student. Greenpeace asked for his help on a research project. Could the US be sued in an international court of law for not acting on a newfound environmental problem largely caused by fossil fuels: climate change?

Cameron delved into the research and, after a few months, came to believe that since every country was contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, every country would do what it could to protect the one earth we call home. Once science fell in line, the world’s leaders would unite to protect future generations.

Speaking at Yale nearly three decades later, he begged to differ with his younger self.

At his lecture at FES on Wednesday, November 12, he recalled working on the Kyoto Protocol, an international top-down treaty that many nations adopted. He was excited when US President Bill Clinton signed it, but the US Senate defeated any effort to make it the law of the land. Thus, the most powerful, influential, and highest carbon-emitting state in the world did not legally promise to take the steps necessary to reduce its impacts of climate change. Years later, Kyoto’s efforts were deemed null, and many nations either pulled out altogether or failed to meet their obligations. The ideal international path forward, for which Cameron and his colleagues had worked, was dead in its tracks.

In 2009, leaders had high expectations for the same top-down approach in Copenhagen, but the world again failed to agree on a comprehensive solution, disappointing any hopes for progress. While many in the environmental community still hold out hope for progress at the annual convention in Paris in 2015, Cameron said he has largely “moved on” from the top-down approach.

Today, he argues for something much different: a bottom-up, grassroots-style climate solution. If not entire nations, then perhaps entire regions, states, territories, cities, industries, corporations or individual businesses will step up to the plate and make a difference collectively.

This bottom-up strategy may be complimentary to new international efforts at top-down actions.  In Brisbane, Australia, during the annual November 2014 G20 Summit, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a joint-effort to reduce carbon emissions. President Obama promised US carbon reductions through efforts such as the recent proposed EPA regulations of power plants. China has promised to increase its renewable energy usage and to decrease its carbon emissions beginning in 2030.

But after the midterm elections, President Obama’s initiatives face a hostile Congress, arguably worse than in 1992 when the Clinton Administration tried to implement the Kyoto Protocol.  Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who will be the new Chair of the US Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, has laughed off climate change and even called the science a hoax. House Republicans have repeatedly passed bills to defund EPA in an effort to combat regulations to fight climate change.  Further, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is doing all he can to “get the EPA reigned in.”  That has caused China to question if the US is serious on climate negotiations. And it means that bottom-up action from cities, states/provinces, civil society, and companies are still critically important.

Whatever happens, it will affect me personally. My family’s fish camp warehouse eroded to the point where we had to take it down or watch it literally fall into the sea. Cities and villages throughout Alaska are facing not just coastal erosion from warmer temperatures, but also invasive species that threaten our subsistence food resources. Melting permafrost has damaged our pipeline and infrastructure. While many people may think warmer temperatures are good for Alaska, in many cases it’s not.  That’s why I have hope in my elders like James Cameron, who dedicated their lives to solve our climate crisis and are still thinking of fresh and encouraging ways forward.

Perhaps learning from failure is the most effective way to learn after all.

Verner Wilson, III, is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.

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